Chanel exhibition in Dubai celebrates the bond of its three designers

A Journey into the Allure highlights the creative threads that link Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard

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“Virginie incarnates what Chanel is today,” Bruno Pavlovsky says of Virginie Viard, the creative director of Chanel’s ready-to-wear and haute couture collections.

As the president of Chanel's fashion activities and of the Federation de la Haute Couture, Pavlovsky is uniquely placed to understand what does, and what does not, encapsulate the house of Chanel.

Viard, the right hand to late designer Karl Lagerfeld for nearly three decades, has embraced a softer, more relaxed silhouette, in response to the demands of real women's lives.

Yet her greatest skill, fuelled by her almost encyclopedic knowledge of the fashion house, is referencing her ideas to those of the two designers who preceded her – Coco Chanel, the original disrupter who launched the maison in 1910 and Lagerfeld, under whom Chanel grew into a global fashion titan.

To help explain the complex aesthetic that underpins Chanel's continued success, the brand is hosting an exhibition titled Chanel – A Journey into the Allure, that opens this week in Dubai.

The show examines the unique creative dialogue that lies at the heart of the house, with its unique style codes, and an indefinable “something” that Chanel chooses to call allure.

“It's always good to engage, or re-engage, our customers on this very unique and specific Chanel point of view. We call it 'allure', but it's kind of style, a way of understanding ready-to-wear and how to wear it,” Pavlovsky tells The National.

Described by the brand as more installation than conventional exhibition, the 10-day immersive event offers a unique opportunity to deep dive into Chanel’s impeccable universe, where masculine tailoring meets feminine chic.

Highlighting the extraordinary DNA of the house, one that has evolved for over a century, work by all three designers will be shown side by side to demonstrate how unified Chanel's lexicon is. This is a fashion house with a crystal clear identity, Pavlovsky says, from the little black dress and tweed to the camelia, ruffles, bows and chiffon that collectively make up Chanel’s design language.

These codes, he says, are key to the house itself. “It's a red thread running through all our collections, and that we are trying to capture and to engage our customer with. If we look at the connection between Karl and Virginie, it is the signature [of the house], but also we see, and understand Mademoiselle Chanel. Allure is easy to show, but not so easy to explain,” he says.

As well as the looks from the archive, including originals by Coco Chanel, there are photographs and footage from the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad in the installation.

Chanel created the costumes for the film's lead actress Delphine Seyrig, a fact that has been a constant source of reference ever since, including for Viard's spring/summer 2023 collection. Together, Pavlovsky says, they offer a “lens of reference” into Chanel's timeless appeal.

“You know it's all about style, it’s about allure and how to wear the pieces. The same dress can be worn very differently depending on your day, or the time, or what you want to do, and that's something that we have tried to capture in this installation. This is part of the Chanel signature, and there is a lot of modernity, including the way to put everything together.”

First staged in Hong Kong, the installation has been reworked to create a new version, yet remains an exhibition, not a place to push product.

“I think it's always good to have some time with the customer which is not about trying to sell the new collection. It's easy to engage with some commercial target such as the launch of a collection, but here it's a kind of break, and to take some time to better understand what Chanel is about.”

This journey of discovery, Pavlovsky says, highlights the beautiful dichotomy that is Chanel – namely of having a strong, recognisable aesthetic that transcends time, yet needing to offer enough newness each season to keep customers coming back for more. “We need to keep customers surprised, because we want them to be surprised. But what we like [at Chanel] is continuity, the consistency of what we are doing. And it's not easy to surprise by being consistent.”

The installation itself invites viewers to linger rather than rush through, a reflection of Chanel's preference to not be trend-based but timeless. “We are not in a hurry,” Pavlovsky says. “It's not an exhibition where you come and go, it's not a short 20-minute film. It's a time to immerse in the brand and into what Chanel is today.”

Notably, the emirate was chosen as the second location for this show. “Dubai is a key destination for us. We have about 15 cities in the world at the heart of our activities and Dubai is one of them,” Pavlovsky says.

At the very heart of this exhibition is the woman currently leading the house and, as Pavlovsky explains, it was Viard who wanted to open the dialogue in the installation to include Chanel and Lagerfeld.

“She herself likes to explain that her expression of style is coming from her 30 years of collaboration with Karl, and today, she's probably one of the leading experts on Mademoiselle Chanel's work. Today, she is the best expression of this, and at the same time she is able to bring modernity, and a touch of her own to this legacy. And it's exactly what we are looking for.”

Viard is able to speak to a new audience of women, offering clothes imbued with all the codes of Chanel, yet are updated and fresh. “She has a kind of simplicity in the way she designs, and the way to wear, which makes it attractive for a lot of women. Her strength is as a woman designing for women, but also as a woman for Chanel.

“I think that Chanel and allure are bigger and stronger than only one designer, but at the same time, the job of each designer is to bring modernity – it's about tomorrow.”

Updated: October 16, 2023, 9:58 AM